When the Washington Redskins took their cheerleading squad to Costa Rica in 2013 for a calendar photo shoot, the first cause for concern among the cheerleaders came when Redskins officials collected their passports upon arrival at the resort, depriving them of their official identification.
For the photo shoot, at the adults-only Occidental Grand Papagayo resort on Culebra Bay, some of the cheerleaders said they were required to be topless, though the photographs used for the calendar would not show nudity. Others wore nothing but body paint.
Such revealing poses would not have been a concern for the women — except that the Redskins had invited spectators. A contingent of sponsors and FedExField suite holders — all men — were granted up-close access to the photo shoots.
One evening, at the end of a 14-hour day that included posing and dance practices, the squad’s director told nine of the 36 cheerleaders that they had a special assignment. Some of the male sponsors had picked them to be personal escorts at a nightclub.
“So get back to your room and get ready,” the director told them. Several of them began to cry.
“They weren’t putting a gun to our heads, but it was mandatory for us to go,” one of the cheerleaders said. “We weren’t asked, we were told. Other girls were devastated because we knew exactly what she was doing.”
Their participation did not involve sex, the cheerleaders said, but they felt as if the arrangement amounted to “pimping us out.” What bothered them was their team director’s demand that they go as sex symbols to please male sponsors, which they did not believe should be a part of their job.
The Redskins’ trip to Costa Rica in 2013 — for which the cheerleaders were paid nothing beyond transportation costs, meals and lodging, the team said — provides a vivid illustration of how NFL teams have used cheerleaders for far more than dancing on the sideline during games. Their treatment has come under intense scrutiny in recent weeks since two former NFL cheerleaders filed discrimination complaints and described a hostile work environment in which they were often dangled as sex objects for the titillation of male fans away from the games.
Interviews with dozens of current and former NFL cheerleaders revealed a common perspective: They enjoyed performing at games, developing friendships with other cheerleaders and participating in charity work, which included visiting hospitals and going overseas to entertain military troops. But they were disturbed by some of the extracurricular requirements that put them in what they considered unsafe situations.
This account of the Redskins’ calendar shoot is based on interviews with five cheerleaders who were involved, and many details were corroborated with others who heard descriptions of the trip at the time. The cheerleaders spoke on condition of anonymity because they were required to sign confidentiality agreements.
“It’s just not right to send cheerleaders out with strange men when some of the girls clearly don’t want to go,” one cheerleader who was there said. “But unfortunately, I feel like it won’t change until something terrible happens, like a girl is assaulted in some way, or raped.”
Stephanie Jojokian, the longtime director and choreographer for the Redskins’ cheerleaders, disputed much of the women’s description of the Costa Rica trip. She vehemently denied that the night at the club was mandatory and said that the cheerleaders who went were not chosen by sponsors.
In a statement, the Redskins said: “The Redskins’ cheerleader program is one of the NFL’s premier teams in participation, professionalism, and community service. Each Redskin cheerleader is contractually protected to ensure a safe and constructive environment.”
A spokesman for the NFL said the league office “has no role in how the clubs which have cheerleaders utilize them.” He reiterated a statement the league has issued in response to previous news reports regarding the treatment of cheerleaders: “Our office will work with our clubs in sharing best practices and employment-related processes that will support club cheerleading squads within an appropriate and supportive workplace.”
Many Redskins cheerleaders understand the team’s approach — sex sells — and remain enthusiastic supporters of the team. They said they were troubled, however, when their safety was not taken seriously. There is no leaguewide policy for security, or a union to protect them.
In an interview on Tuesday, Jojokian choked up when she considered that some cheerleaders felt she did not fully support them.
“It breaks my heart because I’m a mom and I’ve done this for a long time,” she said. “Where is this coming from? I would never put a woman in a situation like that. I actually mentor these women to be strong and to speak up, and it kills me to hear that.”
The Redskins, who said that only six sponsors, including two couples, attended the calendar shoot trip, made available for interviews two cheerleaders who were captains of the squad in 2013. Both women, who spoke on condition of anonymity, praised Jojokian and said she never forced the cheerleaders to do anything they did not want to do.
Regarding the evening out with sponsors in Costa Rica, one of them said, “It was actually just a night of relaxation and to be away from it all.”
A recent contract for Redskins cheerleaders said off-the-field work includes “community and charitable events, youth camps, etc.” There was no mention of entertaining men who financially back the team, and these appearances raised flags for some cheerleaders.
During the photo shoots, they were anxiously aware when the sponsors and other guests were watching.
“At one of my friend’s shoots, we were basically standing around her like a human barricade because she was basically naked, so we could keep the guys from seeing her,” one of the cheerleaders said. “I was getting so angry that the guys on the trip were skeezing around in the background.”
The nine cheerleaders picked to escort the sponsors to a nightclub boarded a hotel van without any Redskins management. When they showed up at the club, it was dark and nearly empty, several of them said. But the men who had requested them were there.
The cheerleaders said they were further bothered by the fact that Redskins officials were there, too. Jojokian was not, but Lon Rosenberg, the senior vice president for operations, and Dennis Greene, the president for business operations, were. A former Redskins cheerleader who volunteered as a sideline assistant during games was encouraging the women to drink and flirt, the cheerleaders said.
“The issue was that management seemed to condone all of this,” one cheerleader who was there said.
At the end of the night, at about 2 or 3 a.m., the women returned to the waiting van, only to be stopped by several police officers who asked for their passports. They did not have them because the team had taken possession of them upon arrival. (The Redskins said it was team policy to collect passports for all international travel as a security precaution.)
“I guess they thought you were prostitutes,” a man affiliated with the cheerleading squad told them after they were allowed to leave.
They returned to the resort, but several women on the team decided not to return to the squad the next season. What happened in Costa Rica, they said, made them feel worthless and unprotected.
“You kept telling yourself that it was going to get better,” one of those women said. “But it never got better. Finally, I had to admit to myself, this is not what I thought it would be.”